A look at mining history, economy of NW Wisconsin


HURLEY – A proposed iron mine in northwestern Wisconsin could have a major impact on the area’s economy, but what’s good for the economy may not be so good for the environment.

Florida-based Gogebic Taconite wants to build a $1.5 billion iron mine in the Penokee Hills of Iron and Ashland counties.

Joany Swetkovich says her restaurant in the small town of Iron Belt directly reflects the area’s current economy.

“I’ve been here 24 years, and this has to be the worst year I’ve ever put in here,” said Swetkovich.

Swetkovich hopes the open-pit mine is built. It would be about 10 miles away from her business. She thinks returning to an industry of the area’s past would turn around the area’s future.

“Everybody that grew up here, it was mining,” said Swetkovich. “Mining, mining, mining, plus a little tourism. To me, that’s what I see. We really need this mine. Environmentally done right, but we need it.”

“We’re hurting, no doubt,” said Harold Schmude.

When taking a ride on the Gile Flowage near Hurley, there’s evidence of old, underground mines that drove the economy in the early and mid-1900s. Schmude has a cabin on the water and says the outdoors are important to everyone in the area.

“People are very environmentally conscious,” said Schmude. “They live here, they hunt here, they fish here, they love it here or they wouldn’t be here.”

People on both sides of the debate about a new mine seem to agree on the significance of nature, but opponents say the project isn’t worth taking a risk.

“The notions of jobs and things like that, I understand that. But at the same time, the price to pay, the types of environmental impacts that come with sickening communities like this that are downwind and downstream it’s just not a trade-off,” said Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.

Gogebic Taconite says its proposed mine would not harm the environment.

The Bad River Tribe fears that sulfides from the mine’s waste rock would mix with water and air to form acidic drainage. That would flow through tribal lands to the shore of Lake Superior.

“There’s got to be other environmentally safe jobs out there, and I know that there are people working on them, and that’s where we’re trying to go to,” said tribal member Joe Bates.

The facts show the economy in northwestern Wisconsin is behind the rest of the state. As of April, Iron County’s unemployment rate is 13.3 percent, which is the second highest in the state.

In Ashland County, it’s 8.8 percent. The statewide rate is 5.9 percent.

Gogebic Taconite says its proposed mine would create 700 full-time jobs during 35 years of operation.

Those people would be paid an average of $80,000 a year. The facts show that’s a high salary for the area.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average family in Iron County makes a lot less money when compared to rest of the state. In Iron County, the median household income is about $37,000 a year. In Wisconsin, that number is nearly $53,000.

Hurley is the biggest community in Iron County. Gogebic Taconite’s office is in the downtown, which has streets named after silver, iron, and granite.

“The mines were always pretty good to us,” said longtime hardware store owner Jack Giovanoni.

He thinks more mining is the only option.

“I don’t know what else that we could really do,” he said. “We got it, so we got to push for what we got.”

Iron County established a mining impact committee to study what a new kind of mining would mean.

“Obviously underground mining is very different from pit mining, but the fact of the matter is many of us over here in Iron County have ancestors and relatives that have worked directly in mines, and kind of understand a little bit about them,” said committee member Bob Walesewicz.

The last mine in the area closed in 1965. As opportunities have disappeared, so have the area’s young people.

“We do have a lot of kids that leave here, and that’s one of the things that we’re trying to remedy,” said Chris Patritto, the administrator of the Hurley School District.

Patritto expects a new mine would keep students in the area. He also says just the idea of the mine has improved the outlook for many people in the community.

“What you’ve seen in this area over the last couple years since this has come up, it’s kind of like a light came back in everyone’s eyes, because if you’ve been from here, you’ve watched this area just slowly decline,” said Patritto.

Opponents have another view and say they’re committed to stopping the project.

“We’re dug in for however long it takes,” said Wiggins.

Gogebic still has to request permits from county, state and federal governments. A final decision on the mine is likely several years away.

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